Sir Ken Robinson: We need every kind of mind

If you've been following along, you know by now that IdeaFesival 2012 will feature a couple of speakers who will talk to the changing nature of education. And why not? The Great Recession has prompted many people to go back to school. Institutions like Stanford and MIT are making a high level education available to all comers by putting coursework online. You won't get a degree, but should you take the instruction and pass the tests, you will sure qualify for one.

Perhaps what we should know and what we do know are at odds.

Speaking in the UCLA Hammer series in the video embedded here, Sir Ken Robinson describes a grade school "linearity" rooted in the industrial age that manufactures students who have been trained to take tests at regularly scheduled times. It assumes, he says, that the most important thing any group of children have in common is their age. There is of course wide variety of human aptitudes and learning styles, each of which are capable of making meaningful contributions to an increasingly interconnected and complex age that prizes critical thinking, curious minds, and skill sets the recognize opportunity - and its accompanying tests - well before the scoring sheet is opened and the clock starts. Robinson:

If we live a life that is straightened by this particular conception of academic ability, we deny the multiplicity of talents on which our communities, [not to mention] a fulfilled life, actually depends.

As a much younger man, I would often rush through the coursework placed before me in the Louisiana public school system so that I could go to the back of the room and pick a battered 50's-era encyclopedia at random from the shelves. Just as routinely I would be asked to stand outside the classroom for leaving my seat. I don't remember a thing from the formal instruction, but can recall that the indexical lettering on the spines of the volumes represented the summae of knowledge for this 1970's Louisiana boy. "B" stood for Biology and Burma, "C" for Cathey and Cells. I happily skipped from peak to peak, and then exited the room.

Knowledge isn't a linear affair with one subject leading inevitably to another. And like Robinson - though far, far less eloquent and warm. Watch the video! - I think it should be possible to recognize that different children learn in different ways, that some must move and learn with their hands, and some will remain content encountering knowledge that appeals directly to their minds. I think that because I was the kid who didn't care for the coursework on offer, the quiet kid who would happily stand outside and with the unnatural pluck of someone for whom some deep doctrine had been violated, confidently explained my presence to the principal walking from room to room.

One of the reasons why I love the IdeaFestival is that it recognizes that we need every kind of mind, that our passions are kindled in different ways. The festival annually presents leading thinkers and innovators from all kinds of disciplines, and this year it will present, among many others, educators, artists, a theoretical physicist, a historian of science, musicians, entrepreneurs, a diplomat and a poet.

At the end of three days, your credentials will include a closer familiarity with ideas that inform both culture and enterprise. And you'll love the instruction.

Stay curious.


Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by Caitlyn Willows